When Alexander Hleb arrived in Bulgaria with the Belarus squad last month he received a welcome he's unlikely to forget.
Fifteen members of the Arsenal Bulgaria Supporters Club gathered at Sofia airport to greet the Arsenal midfielder ahead of his nation's Euro 2008 qualifier with Bulgaria.
The supporters were not left disappointed as the 26-year-old spent time signing autographs and posing for photographs. Arsenal.com spoke to Arsenal Bulgaria Supporters Club chairman Liubomir Metodiev about the event, Alex's reaction and what it would mean to Bulgarians if one of their countrymen signed for the Gunners.
How did Alexander Hleb's welcoming ceremony come about?
"This is a tradition for us. Whenever an Arsenal player comes to Bulgaria we organise a welcoming ceremony. We organised ceremonies for Freddie Ljungberg and Sebastian Larsson in 2005 when they came with the Swedish national team for a World Cup qualifier. Then we did the same for Robin van Persie in October 2006. We wanted to show them that the Arsenal Bulgaria Supporters Club respects everybody connected to Arsenal. We did it to show our appreciation and support for the team and it was a way for some us who have not had the chance to attend an Arsenal game to have a closer connection to the team we all love."
What did you do to greet him?
"We found out what time the Belarus team was arriving at Sofia airport and about half an hour before we took our place at the arrivals gate. One of our members works at the airport and he met Alex beforehand and got him to sign autographs for all of us. There were 15 of us with an Arsenal flag, Arsenal jerseys and Arsenal scarves all chanting "Arsenal, Arsenal, Arsenal". When Hleb entered our songs became noisier and we started chanting his name. Alex was noticeably intrigued and pleased, and immediately came to us. He shook hands with each of us and signed the Arsenal flag. Some journalists asked him what he thought of the ceremony and he said he was very pleased and thanked us for the way they we had welcomed him."
What were your impressions of Alex?
"He showed unbelievably good feelings towards us and paid attention to us as much as possible. Aside from the autographs he was constantly smiling and had his photograph taken with all of us. He also had a photo with the entire group and this will remain a life-long memory for all of us. We did not have much time to talk to him, but he received a lot of best wishes from our side. We told him we want him to play for Arsenal for a long, long time and win many trophies with the Club. He thanked us for being there and when the Belarus team bus was leaving he gave us a big smile and a thumbs up."
What is your favourite memory of the day?
His impulsive reaction to come directly to us as he walked in through the gate. Also afterwards when we all gathered in our favourite pub and discussed our impressions of the event. Alex's arrival happened to be just three days before the third birthday of our Supporters Club. In a way it was our special gift.
Did the media know what you had planned?
No, but all the national and sport media companies had a representative at the airport and they witnessed first-hand the attention we gave Alex. All of them mentioned the Arsenal Bulgaria Supporters Club in their reports - with great compliments.
So, what are your thoughts on Hleb the player?
I think he's an integral part of Arsène Wenger's young team. I think his extraordinary technical skills and fighting spirit bring excitement and happiness to Arsenal fans around the globe. In Bulgaria we hold especially warm feelings for "Sasha" (in Russian and Bulgarian this is a common abbreviation for Alexander) because his mentor at Stuttgart was the genius playmaker Krassimir Balakov. We see many similarities to Balakov in Hleb's way of playing.
What is your favourite Hleb moment?
It was when he scored his first Arsenal goal against West Bromwich Albion the season before last. It was the special day dedicated to Club legend Dennis Bergkamp and "Sasha" scored an amazing goal. It was also the first time that the Arsenal Bulgaria Supporters Club organised a group visit to Highbury, so it was a special moment all round.
What would it mean to the members of your Club if a Bulgarian signed for Arsenal?
I think that it would increase the reputation of Arsenal tremendously in Bulgaria. At the moment, Arsenal Bulgaria Supporters Club is one of the biggest foreign Supporters Clubs but if a Bulgarian was to sign for Arsenal the enthusiasm and news would be flying in. Bulgaria is a small country and every Bulgarian playing in a foreign team is followed closely.
Compared to other Premiership teams how popular are Arsenal in Bulgaria?
In terms of popularity I think Arsenal would be among the top four clubs in any country, alongside the likes of Barcelona, Liverpool and Manchester United. But going on our organization, I'd say they are definitely No 1 here. I don't believe there is any other Supporters Club as organised, as active, or with as many supporters as us. We have around 140 members and with the help of couple of famous people and a few journalists who joined the Club, Arsenal are becoming more and more popular. Many people stop us and ask us about the Club, transfers and anything regarding the team because we are seen as representatives of Arsenal in Bulgaria.
Have you planned any more welcome ceremonies for the near future?
We are awaiting with eager anticipation the visit of Justin Hoyte and Theo Walcott, and any other Arsenal players with the England Under-21 squad in the autumn. They're playing a European Championship qualifier against Bulgaria. Hopefully we will be able to give them the same reception as we did Hleb.
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